By Gideon Rubin
It’s probably appropriate that San Diego Jewish Academy volleyball standout Katie Sherman plays setter.
The inherently unselfish role seems like a natural fit for the incoming senior, who’s known for putting others before herself in just about everything she does on and off the court.
Sherman has spent parts of the last three summers doing charitable work in far-flung locations such as Costa Rica, Australia and Thailand.
And when doctors recommended she at least cutback her year-round volleyball after developing a debilitating shoulder injury, she gave up the more individually focused club volleyball circuit so she could focus on her high school team.
“I always take care of others before I take care of myself,” Sherman said. “I know that can be bad, but I’m working on it.”
Sherman earlier this month returned from a two-week program in Thailand teaching small children how to swim on rice fields that often flood without warning.
She’s spent parts of the last two summers cleaning polluted beaches in Costa Rica and Australia. The programs are run by Rustic Pathways, a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting the development of life skills through community service.
“Most of these kids don’t know how to swim and a lot of them drown in the rice fields, so one of programs was getting them comfortable swimming on their backs,” she said of her work in Thailand.
“Just teaching them basic things to help them survive, it’s such a great feeling.”
Sherman has experienced a different kind of exhilaration on the volleyball court.
She’s a three-time All-San Diego Section Div. V selection and three time all-league selection (twice in the Citrus League West, and once in the Coastal League North).
As a sophomore she helped lead the Lions to the program’s first appearance in the Div. V finals in 2010. The Lions became SDJA’s only team in any sport to advance to the state playoffs that year.
Last season, she led the team in assists with 285 and was second in service aces (69), helping the Lions advance to the Div. V semifinals.
Sherman has played her entire SDJA career with a shoulder injury she developed during a weight-lifting camp three years ago. The pain started in her right trapezius muscle, then spread to her left shoulder, and eventually her neck and back.
She said doctors believe the injury is caused by her muscles not pulling at each other properly.
“That’s what we think it is because of the location and the (pain),” she said. “There might be some nerves involved too, but we think (the injury) is muscle based.”
The pain is present when she’s active and inactive. She said it’s moderate when she’s going through her daily routines, but flares up during strenuous activity. She takes anti-inflammatory medication and wraps her shoulder in ice after matches.
“It’s tough because it’s something that’s out of your control and I like to have control over what I’m doing,” Sherman said. “The fact that we don’t know what’s causing it makes it really hard. If we knew, I’d be more settled.
“I guess I’ve learned to accept that are some things that we can’t control. That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve learned from this.”
Rothman was playing year-round at the time of the diagnosis for the Solana Beach Volleyball club team and SDJA. She initially ignored doctors orders to at least give up one, but eventually capitulated, dropping her club team when the pain got to be too much after her sophomore year.
“I had such a connection with my school,” she said. “I’ve been going there since kindergarten and it was really important to me to support it.”
Teammates say Sherman rarely complains about the pain.
“You never even see it on her face,” said teammate and co-captain Gabi Rothman.
“That’s what scares me, even if she hurt herself so bad she would never say it. The only time we noticed it was after one of the games. She literally could not stand up. She had ice packs on her shoulder, and she’d just played the whole game. Nobody knew that she was in pain the whole time.”
Sherman’s toughness inspires teammates.
“It’s just a big eye-opener,” Rothman said. “As a teammate when I’m feeling really tired and I want to take a break it kind of reminds me that there’s something else going on, that there are other people with much bigger injuries.
“It really is very inspiring. It says a lot about her character and just the way she is.”
Sherman, who along with Rothman are co-captains, said she’s embraced her leadership role, but she said she isn’t trying send any particular message playing through her injury.
“I’m not striving to prove anything,” she said. “I’m just trying to show that I’m there for them, no matter what.”
But through her actions, she’s sent a powerful message to her teammates, SDJA coach Melissa Maxwell said.
“Her heart is huge and she has so much passion for the game,” Maxwell said. “You can teach skills but you can’t teach passion, you can’t teach attitude.”
Sherman said her travels abroad have shaped her attitude towards the circumstances surrounding her injury.
“Going on those trips just humbled me,” she said. ”I realized that even though my pain is sometimes unbearable, I have it so much better than a lot of people. I have to realize that if this is the one thing I have to deal with in my life, then I’m so lucky.”